In an editorial last week, The New York Times proposed a startling, if cautiously worded idea.
"The potential impact of Google's algorithm on the Internet economy," the paper wrote, "is such that it is worth exploring ways to ensure that the editorial policy guiding Google's tweaks is solely intended to improve the quality of the results and not to help Google's other businesses."
The national paper of record, in other words, was talking about government regulation of Google's famously classified search algorithm. (The mealy-mouthed language used to suggest this might explain why the editorial, "The Google Algorithm," ironically comes up on a Google search of the topic well below the many reactions criticizing it.)
The techy blogosphere promptly erupted.
"No, it really isn't," responded the Business Insider.
Wired mused that members of a government commission wouldn't be qualified to understand Google's formula even if they got their hands on it. Other critics called the editorial "dreadfully misguided" and "short on evidence."
Veteran industry reporter Danny Sullivan penned a now widely-circulated piece of satire suggesting it is, in fact, the Times' own algorithm for internal editorial deliberations that needs government intervention. Search engines, he pointed out, weigh the importance of content in much the same way newspapers do.
"Guess what," Sullivan concluded. "The First Amendment protections of freedom of speech and freedom of the press apply to more than newspapers. In fact, they apply to search engines."
Eventually, Google entered the fray itself with a line of self-defense that appeared first in the Financial Times, and then on the company's own (paywall-free) public policy blog. If it were forced to adopt a standardized formula, or to make its model publicly available — never mind the logistical challenge of doing this with an algorithm that evolves daily — Google says the process would discourage innovation and invite people to "game the system."
As a user, you might suffer when inundated with links constructed to appeal to Google's algorithm without actually offering useful information. (Consider, for example, this highly searchable story, which is not really about Lady Gaga.)
The Times' main offense appears to be dabbling in an idea that has little credibility among the people who think about these kinds of things full time. (Several critics also scoffed at the original champion of this idea, a little-known and bitter British competitor called Foundem.)
The Times' concern, however, derives from a legitimate observation: Many businesses are made or broken today on the ease with which people can find them online. And as Google's business inevitably expands beyond basic Web searches, what happens if it stands to benefit from prioritizing its own affiliates or partners above competitors in your queries?
This fear springs from another concept that Google itself supports: net neutrality. But the company says the same principle of unfettered, equal access that should govern network providers doesn't make sense when applied to search engines as "search neutrality" (Foundem has a lot to say about this here).
Web searches, after all, are designed to be skewed, to present some kind of judgment of what's best or most helpful and informative. Remove the judgment, and you've just got 10,300,000 nonsensical results for "Google algorithm" that reveal even less about the mysterious topic than Google lets on itself.
Besides, the Times' critics suggest, if Google starts turning out search results that benefit its bottom line more than its users, you can always just go here.